The BBC. It’s there when we need high-quality, advertisement-free news. It’s there when we want the thrill of a new TV drama. It’s there when we are looking for reliable local news reporting. And it’s there when we want informative educational programmes for our children. And much, much more. As I told a Westminster debate about Eastern England this week, it is local news-presenters like the hugely respected recently-retired Stewart White who give so many people a sense of our community – the friendly, reliable face in the corner of the living room or kitchen each evening. The BBC is a great British institution, one of our greatest exports and national assets. It is a jewel in our crown. We must protect it, promote it, and cherish it.
But this week, the Government announced plans to freeze and eventually scrap BBC funding in the form of the licence fee. It is right that we have an ongoing discussion about decisions like this as we move into a new digital age, but that was so clearly not what this announcement was about.
This was a desperate play from a Government on the ropes. As Boris Johnson fights for his survival, his Government is putting out as many announcements from the Trump playbook as it can, in a pathetic attempt to appease its extreme right wing.
The BBC is one of the victims of this plan, dubbed ‘Operation Red Meat’. I, for one, do not want to see us move to an American media model. The deep divisions in America have often been attributed to its media system, with channels like Fox News pedalling conspiracy theories and sensationalised news stories. American news channels are very partisan and owned by the ultra-rich. They can keep their rotten divisive model with all the harm that it does, we have something much better and we will fight to keep it.
Investment in the BBC is also an investment in our communities. Think of how many actors, musicians, and presenters have come through the BBC. It invests in the talent of the future, in a way that other media institutions do not always have the capacity to do. Britain exports its cultural talent across the world; it is a source of income for us and a source of national pride.
The BBC is often criticised by people in politics. I’ve been furious at them in the last couple of years for being so soft on the Government – so much so that I’ve switched to News at Ten on ITV which in my view has been far more hard-hitting. But I do appreciate that not everyone sees things my way, and that many in the Conservative party feel that the BBC is far too left-wing. They may be a bit out of date there, but if the BBC are upsetting both political wings, they may just be doing something right! And I certainly accept that there is always room for improvement and that like most institutions, the BBC is far from perfect. The comedy series W1A (I hope it was comedy, not documentary) was a hoot and recognisable to anyone who has ever been close to the media sector. I also think the independent TV sector does a fine job, but it’s not an either or, we can have both, and I think it is important to have a broadcaster not interrupted by advertisements and not subject to influence by wealthy owners, we have enough of that in the printed media.The licence fee model has stood the test of time. It ensures independence from government, independence from external interests, and, subject to negotiation, it provides proper funding.
It is right to be concerned about the cost of living at the moment. Under the Conservatives, inflation is at its highest rate in years. But it was to tackle pensioner poverty that Labour introduced free TV licences for pensioners in the first place. There are clearly solutions available to make sure the licence fee model is fair and reasonable. That is why it was hard to take seriously the Culture Secretary’s protestations when making her statement. She says her party cares about the cost of living – when it has been their carelessness on inflation and energy price rises, their cuts to universal credit and their national insurance tax rise which is putting such pressure on people across the country.
It is an issue which stirs strong emotions, and I’ve seen it in my email inbox this week: Cambridge people support the BBC and support the wide range of services provided. It is something we should be proud of. While the Conservatives may want to trash a national treasure, Labour backs the BBC, and we will ensure this great institution survives and thrives.